Even after visiting Iceland six times, I continue to learn new tips that make future adventures to the country more enjoyable and efficient. I'll share the full itinerary from my trip in June of 2021, but let's start with a few tips that might help you out regardless of what stops you plan to make.
Be prepared for changing and unpredictable weather
Weather in Iceland can be brutal, but having the right gear can prevent you from feeling miserable. That's why bringing layers is a must. My typical outfit included jeans, a long sleeved undershirt and either a windbreaker or rain jacket depending on the weather. When the wind and rain decided to chill out, a sweatshirt and jeans were enough.
I also highly recommend waterproof boots, a warm hat, gloves and one pair of waterproof pants no matter what the weather forecast says before leaving. If the weather doesn't get you wet, some of the waterfalls will.
If you're bringing camera gear you'll want a rain cover for your backpack, too. I keep mine in my backpack regardless of what the weather forecast says. Even if it shows sunny skies, a downpour could happen at any time.
Renting a 4x4 is a must
Iceland is a country you visit to explore a wide range of landscapes no matter what the weather is. Some of my favorite experiences have been detouring down random roads to see where they lead. You'll find bumpy, muddy and even water covered roads throughout the country. Having a proper vehicle allows you to safely cross obstacles and continue on with the adventure instead of needing to turn around or becoming stuck.
You don't need to rent a Defender or monster 4x4, but we opted for something bigger this time because we also wanted the extra space to carry around all of the food we bought at Costco.
Some of the best roads to explore are F-Roads (mountain roads). A lot of these roads are still closed in June because melting snow causes flooded/muddy roads making them impassable. If you plan to explore F-Roads into the highlands, consider planning a trip in July or later.
If you're interested in learning more about driving on F-Roads, read this very detailed blog post.
Bring an inverter for your car no matter what you rent
This will allow you to plug in multiple phones, camera gear batteries, laptops, etc. A trip to Iceland typically includes a lot of driving, so it's a good idea to have enough power to charge anything you need while on the go. ABC (always be charging). I use this one from Amazon.
24 hours of light means flexible exploration
Exploring Iceland in the summer means a lot of light, tour busses and large crowds at popular locations.
If sleep is important to you, bring a sleep mask or find accommodations that have blackout shades.
If avoiding crowds is important to you, plan on visiting popular locations after 6PM. The crowds are small at the moment, but once the world begins to travel again Iceland will be full of tour busses and larger crowds.
Some of my favorite experiences were visiting popular locations around midnight. In almost every case, we were the only people there, which was incredibly peaceful.
Stock up at Costco before leaving Reykjavik
Dining out is expensive, especially if you're adding alcohol. That's why we decided to buy enough food at Costco to last us the entire trip. This saved us a lot of money and time (service in Iceland is typically slow). For a 7 day trip with four people, we paid around $450 at Costco, which included the cooler.
The goal and itinerary
The goal of this trip was to balance exploring while relaxing at a leisurely pace. I've done Iceland in the summer where we explored from the moment we woke up until the moment we were about to pass out. I saw a lot, but we were constantly on the go and didn't book our accommodations until the day of because we weren't sure where we'd end up. I love a good adventure where you just wing it, but not for every trip.
I've also done a trip where I explored Iceland in a camper van and tent for a week, but most likely will not do that again. I lived in an RV for a year so I'm not against camping or traveling in one, but I find the experience less enjoyable in Iceland. Most of that is because of the weather and dealing with wet/muddy gear in the same area that you sleep in.
On the opposite end of the camper van experience, I've done a trip where I only stayed in luxury hotels. They were definitely great to stay at, but you won't be spending much time in a hotel room when visiting Iceland. That's why I'd rather save money on accommodations and spend extra on a better 4x4 and activities.
I'd consider the following itinerary to be a balance of being comfortable and exploring the variety of landscapes that Iceland has to offer without burning yourself out. Or, an intro to Iceland trip. I say intro to Iceland because I don't think it's a country that you only visit once.
When I was planning my first trip to Iceland, I thought it was a once in a lifetime trip and I had to pack in as much as possible. After returning from the first trip I realized Iceland isn't that type of experience, which is why I continue to visit so many times. Instead of looking at Iceland as a rare vacation, I look at it as a never ending adventure that constantly provides some of my favorite experiences and much needed time away from the city life.
After landing, we grabbed a few bottles of wine at the duty free shop since it's a lot cheaper there than outside of the airport. Definitely worth picking up any alcohol before leaving the airport if you plan to drink. After that, we went through the extremely easy process of getting tested for Covid and found a cab to our rental car company located 15 minutes from central Reykjavik ($150).
After we received the text that it was okay to exit quarantine (4 hours), we headed to Costco. We bought a huge bag of pasta, sandwich ingredients and a ton of snacks to keep us full throughout the trip.
Now that the boring stuff was out of the way we drove 50 minutes to the volcano from our hotel.
Before visiting the Volcano, visit https://safetravel.is to view the latest updates. The first day we went, we were able to hike trail A, but lava destroyed that path so it's no longer available. The second day we visited the volcano, trail B closed as soon as we arrived so we were only able to hike around the lava field. That is, until gas levels became too high and we had to leave.
We also picked up skewers at a grocery store in Reykjavik (Bonus) because we wanted to cook hot dogs and marshmallows over the lava. It took us a little to find a spot to cook over and I'm definitely missing hairs on my arms, but I'd say it was worth it. Cooking food over lava and swishing it down with water from a glacier? That basically sums up a trip to Iceland or just a typical meal for Chuck Norris.
There are a ton of places along the Golden Circle route and I've seen enough blog posts that cover this so I'll list a few of my favorite places.
- Bruarfoss waterfall - pictured above. A fun hike that takes about an hour with a couple of small stops on the way.
- Gullfoss waterfall - one of the biggest, but also most popular.
- Scuba diving at Silfra is a must if you're certified. You do need drysuit experience so if you plan to dive at Silfra make sure to get this done locally first since it will be cheaper and save you time.
- Haifoss waterfall - one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland and one of my favorite stops. You'll experience less crowds and probably be the only people there, which makes it that much better.
- Kerlingarfjoll - we were not able to go during this trip because of a road closure, but if rough roads, hiking and beautiful views are your thing, you'll want to check this out.
- Secret Lagoon - a smaller and more chill environment than bigger hot springs. Great way to end the day before heading back to the Airbnb.
After exploring the Golden Circle, we ended up at our Airbnb (pictured above) that was only five minutes from the popular Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui waterfalls. We booked two nights at the same place because it's nice to not waste time packing, unpacking, checking in, checking out and repeating that every day.
After making some of our instant oatmeal from Costco we visited waterfalls that you'll want to be prepared for. Bring your waterproof gear (even pants if you have them).
- Seljalandsfoss waterfall - fun to walk behind, but you will get wet.
- Gljufrabui waterfall - if you weren't wet enough from the above, you will be now.
- Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
- Skogafoss waterfall - if it's nice outside, enjoy a drink on the Skogafoss restaurant patio.
- Kvernufoss waterfall - lesser known, but very close to Skogafoss. Pictured above.
Another day, another bowl of oatmeal, but different scenery. After a full day of waterfalls, it was time to change it up. Today is about beaches, Yoda, Defender swimming, glaciers and a school bus cafe.
- Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach - the most popular black sand beach.
- Skool Beans cafe - a school bus cafe in Vik worth stopping at.
- Hjorleifshofdi (Yoda Cave) - the cave is nice to see, but the real fun begins after you pass it. After driving on the beach you'll see a more defined trail that eventually leads to a river. Water levels will vary, but the Defender had no problem passing through.
- Random road on our way to the glacier area - GPS of the photo says 64.012, -16.393. When you're close to the area, search with the GPS to find the road to go down, which isn't very far off of the 1 (the main road around the island). I had more fun hanging out here than I did the more popular Jokulssarlon Lagoon.
- Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
We decided not to travel around the entire island so we drove back to Reykjavik and grabbed an Airbnb for the remaining three nights.
From Jokulsarlon, the trip would be 4.5 hours without any stops. However, what I like about turning around with a few days left is that you can stop at places that you missed because of weather. Or, if you really like a place, you can plan to stay longer and enjoy the scenery. On our way back we stopped at:
- Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
- Þakgil and Remundargil - we were on our way to these locations, but had to turn around once we were about 2 miles away. There was an unexpected snowstorm the night before and we ran into roads that didn't seem very safe once we reached a certain elevation in the mountains.
- Revisited Skogafoss since the weather was better. We also spent more time at the restaurant and had a couple of drinks.
After our leisurely drive back to Reykjavik, we arrived to our Airbnb, did laundry and made dinner. We decided to make last call at a local bar ( around 11PM) followed by a group chat by the harbor.
One of my favorite things about Iceland is that you can experience so many different landscapes within a short period of time. If you wanted to, you could see an active volcano spilling out lava in the morning and walk on a glacier five hours later. To make things even more fun, you could have lunch and a glass of wine behind a waterfall just because. That's how diverse Iceland is! That's why I'd recommend saving at least one day to see the western side of Iceland during this trip. The landscape is a bit different than what you'll see in the east, which is why you'll want to plan a return adventure that focuses on the west after this trip's little preview.
- Gerðuberg Cliffs - they don't look like much in photos, but it was relaxing spending a short amount of time here.
- Kirkjufellsfoss - one of the most photographed spots in Iceland, but I enjoyed other areas more. I think it's worth the stop, but my opinion is that it's a little overrated unless you're looking for the Instagram shot.
- Bjarnarfoss waterfall - I liked stopping here more than the popular Kirkjufellsfoss. We spent time hiking to the top, drinking water straight from the river and even enjoyed a little meditation while listening to the waterfall crash onto the rocks below.
Since an active volcano is such a unique experience, we wanted to visit again. Even though we already saw it on our first day, the experience was completely different the second time around. Instead of hiking to a viewpoint that showed the opening of the volcano, we were informed that we could only head towards the lava field since the current trail was being destroyed by lava. We weren't too bummed because we already spent a few hours watching the volcano erupt on day 1 and brought food to cook over the lava this time around.
After a healthy dose of hot dogs, marshmallows and carbon dioxide, it was time to fully relax. We headed to the new hot spring, Sky Lagoon, which is only 15 minutes away from central Reykjavik. I can't think of a better way to end a trip full of exploring than the experience at Sky Lagoon. The hot spring is beautiful, but they also have a 7 step ritual that elevates the experience just a tad bit more. My two favorite steps included the cold plunge and sauna with a gorgeous view.
After a few hours of being completely lazy and enjoying the swim up bar, we headed back to the Airbnb and cooked our final dinner in Iceland.
Three of us were on the same flight so we split a cab to the airport ($130). Hopefully this changes in the near future, but there were no food options available once we went through border control even though a sign says restaurants were only a short walk away. If you're hungry and want to eat before your flight, I'd recommend picking something up in the main area before you go through border control.
If you visit the airport and things have changed, please let us know so we can update this section!
Until next time, Iceland....
There's a reason Iceland is my most visited country. Every time I go, I have a different experience that makes me want to visit even more. A secret ice cave that existed last year no longer exists, but a volcano decided to pop up in 2021. If you visit in the summer there's no chance of seeing the Northern Lights, but if you visit in the winter, be prepared for extreme weather and lack of sunlight for the chance to see an incredible dance show in the sky. It's that kind of diversity that makes it impossible to only visit Iceland once.